Open Letter to Professional Philosophical Associations (Guest Post by Alan Richardson)

Open Letter to Professional Philosophical Associations (Guest Post by Alan Richardson)


Alan Richardson is professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He works mainly in the history of philosophy of science and analytic philosophy. He has written an open letter to the leadership of the American Philosophical Association, the Canadian Philosophical Association, the British Philosophical Association, and the Australian Association of Philosophy regarding the Philosophical Gourmet Report and its function in the profession of philosophy, which is posted below.


Dear Colleagues:

Recent events  have forced me to think more, and more clearly, about the place of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) in the professional life of philosophers than I had, I regret to say, done heretofore.  I have, in consequence, come to a new diagnosis about the core problem with the PGR.

In line with many others, I always took myself to have mainly methodological worries about the PGR.  I now understand that my principal concern is, rather, one of governance.  Here is my concern:

My understanding is that the editor, the advisory board, and the evaluators compile the PGR in order to serve the interests of academic philosophers and their students.  Thus, the profession of academic philosophy is at least one of the groups whose interests are, it is claimed, being served by the PGR.  My trouble is that I, as a member of the profession, have no effective voice in the governance of the PGR—I cannot, in particular, affect any change to that governance structure if I feel that the interests of the profession (or of philosophy students) are not in fact being served as well as they might be.  (I cannot see any description on the PGR site of how the editor or advisory board members are chosen; the masthead suggests, meanwhile, that the PGR is the work of an individual.  Unlike many groups organized for the greater good, the PGR does not provide any constitution or other governance documents on its website.)

In effect, under the current governance of the PGR, some members of the profession have declared themselves to be the group who will look after these interests of the profession, while the profession has no rights of sovereignty in how the PGR is governed.  It is a deeply paternalistic and authoritarian model of governance.  It is a governance structure that, lacking accountability to the groups whose interests it is meant to serve, lends itself to precisely the sort of behaviour we have seen.

The central groups that look after the interests of the philosophical profession and that members of the profession have a say in the governance of are the national learned societies.  I would be much more comfortable—if a ranking serves our professional interests at all—if the learned societies of Anglophone philosophy would take a leadership role in constructing a more democratic governance structure for the rankings of record of Anglophone departments of philosophy.  That would make the governance structure transparent to the profession and give the profession a way to alter that governance structure should it see fit.  If we do not solve this problem of governance, all other problems are solvable only through acts of grace from within the PGR.

One governance model that comes to mind would be for the main learned societies in the Anglophone world to appoint an editor and approve the editor’s choice of an advisory board, much as is done for society journals but jointly so that no one nation is seen as pre-eminently involved.  Another would be for the learned societies to form an advisory committee and to hire a professional organization to handle the survey—there is no need for the survey to be run by a professional philosopher, but the committee would help craft the wording, the recipient lists, etc. for the survey.

The largest of the Anglophone national societies—the APA—has a statement in which it declares it does not undertake and does not sponsor or endorse any rankings of departments.  That is fine; but it does undertake to serve the interests of its members.  There are ways to take a leadership role in altering the way rankings are governed without taking on the doing of them oneself.  The APA might consider explicitly condemning rankings edited by people who act abusively toward members of the profession; it might consider distancing itself from any ranking system that has no democratic input from within the profession in the choice of editor or advisory board.  Without some such action I have a hard time seeing that the APA is fulfilling its mission statement, which reads in part:  “The APA is active in the defense of professional rights of philosophers”.

The time has come for the profession to make sure that the conduct of the rankings of departments reflects the interests of the profession as a whole.  The only way to assure that is to give the profession as a whole—either through its national learned societies or, should they be unable to take a leadership role in this, through some other route—a genuine say in the conduct of rankings.

Alan Richardson
Professor
Department of Philosophy
University of British Columbia
Member, APA
Member, CPA

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eric winsberg
7 years ago

I think this gets at one of the absolutely core problems and explains why so many people are willing to sign the Semptember Statement. I think whatever one thinks of Brian Leiter’s personal behavior, one can see all the problems as supervening on the lack of democrat accountability to the PGR, since no democratically elected representative would behave in the ways that people have found objectionable without expecting it to impact them in the next ballot. Alan is exactly right when he says: “It is a governance structure that, lacking accountability to the groups whose interests it is meant to serve, lends itself to precisely the sort of behaviour we have seen.”Report

Frédéric Bouchard
Frédéric Bouchard
7 years ago

The CPA has received professor Richardson’s letter, and offered a preliminary response by email. Our next board meeting is in a few weeks, and, as we would with any proposal of this type brought by one of our members, we will discuss the issue with our board.

Frédéric Bouchard, president of the Canadian Philosophical Association

l’ACP a reçu la lettre du professeur Richardson et nous lui avons envoyé une réponse préliminaire. Notre prochaine réunion du conseil est dans quelques semaines, et, comme nous le ferions pour toute question du genre soulevée par un de nos membres, nous discuterons de la question lors de notre prochaine réunion du conseil.

Frédéric Bouchard, président de l’association canadienne de philosophieReport

j/k
j/k
7 years ago

I am having trouble following the line of argument in this post. The problem is supposed to be with the PGR’s governance. Not that it is being governed badly–or at least, that claim is not argued for. Rather, because it is governed in a “deeply paternalistic and authoritarian” way.

As for being paternalistic, it is hard for me to see what this charge amounts to. Normally, we call something paternalistic if it forces or perhaps strongly encourages or incentivizes people to do things that the “parent” takes to be for their (the non-parents’) own good. But the PGR isn’t paternalistic in this sense, is it? It can’t force or strongly encourage anyone to do anything, can it?

As for being authoritarian, I’m again unsure what that means in this context. Leiter “governs” the PGR much in a much *less* authoritarian way than I govern my own website, for example. Initially the suggestion seems to be that the PGR be run democratically (such that Richardson can have some say in how it is run), and it is suggested that the PGR be run like a journal. But journals certainly aren’t run democratically–I have never had any input on journal policies at the Phil Review, and I probably never will. Later it is suggested that the PGR be run jointly by “the main learned societies in the Anglophone world”. Since those societies are democratically governed, I guess the idea would be that that would make the PGR democratically governed as well.

In any case, this seems like a horrible idea. The restriction to the Anglophone world seems problematic, but it gets worse. If the APA, say, had (most of the) control over the PGR, various interest groups would have a strong motivation to game the elections for the APA in order to gain control of the PGR, and thereby influence public perceptions of philosophy departments and, thereby, the kind of philosophy practiced therein. Or course, this would only need to happen once in order for people to start taking voting in APA elections more seriously, but heavily politicized APA elections and PGR board appointments doesn’t sound like a future we should *try* to bring about.

In any case, almost all the defenders of the PGR have claimed that they would happily consider alternative rankings if the APA, or Richard Heck, or Josephine Schmo wants to make some. The goal of making something better than the PGR is a great one. If you have that goal, act on it. But achieving that goal does not require “taking” the PGR from Leiter, however gently, or shutting it down.Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
Reply to  j/k
7 years ago

I think you might be too quick to dismiss the PGR’s influence on the behavior of philosophy departments. Indeed, I’ve found (though based purely on anecdotal evidence) that the PGR’s advisory board’s views about which disciplines are central to philosophy and the characteristics that make for a good philosopher have a fairly strong influence on the hiring practices of various departments. Because improving one’s ranking has a pronounced effect on graduate student recruitment and on getting administrators off of one’s back, the PGR in fact does provide strong incentives for people to act in certain ways – namely to hire folks that would result in one’s department composition that would better meet the PGR’s advisory board’s conception of an ideal philosophy department.Report

Anonymous PhD Candidate
Anonymous PhD Candidate
7 years ago

I think this post brings out one of the main problems that I’m having with this whole issue. Ever since the September Statement was released, it has seemed to me as though the philosophical community has been speaking about the PGR as though it in some way belongs to the profession, and this letter, I think, gives some insight into why. Professor Richardson’s complaint is that the editor/advisory board/evaluators claim to “serve the interests of the profession,” and as a result of this aim the profession at large ought to have some say in how this is accomplished. However, I think that he is here conflating “serving the interests of” and “providing a service to.” My understanding is that the PGR’s aim has always been to provide a service to graduate students given that, at the time of its founding, no service existed which could adequately and efficiently communicate the relative prestige of PhD programs in Philosophy. Throughout its existence the PGR has gained more and more influence, to be sure, and departments have used it in ways that Professor Leiter surely never anticipated when he founded it. However, its role and influence in the profession does not confer any rights of ownership or governance on members of the profession at large. Now, it is reasonable for members of the profession to object to this influence and to call on professional associations to produce a ranking system that is democratically governed and which might compete with the PGR, but this is a much different issue than calling on Professor Leiter to step down from his position as editor. He might choose to do so for the good of the PGR’s reputation, but by no means does he owe it to the members of the profession to do so.

Daily Nous claims to be providing a service to the profession also (see the tagline: “News for and about the Philosophy profession”), but if readers became dissatisfied with its influence or with Professor Weinberg’s conduct would we demand a say in its governance? Certainly not. Similarly, I may be dissatisfied with the internet provider that serves my community (there is basically only one). I may even think that it damages the community on the whole, but I would be laughed out of their office if I walked in and demanded some say in governing their corporation. The PGR does not represent the profession despite being hugely influential in it. It is a service provided by Leiter and a relatively small group of professional philosophers, and, as such, I don’t see how anyone could reasonably demand some say in its governance simply by virtue of being a member of the profession at large.Report

Another Anonymous
Another Anonymous
Reply to  Anonymous PhD Candidate
7 years ago

I see your point, Anonymous PhD Candidate, but I think I understood the argument somewhat differently. If it is in interest of the profession to have a ranking system, then we can meaningfully ask questions about how best to serve those interests. The argument above seems to suggest that a private, undemocratic ranking system does not serve the profession as well as an open, democratic one would. If that is true, then it is in the interests of the profession to start an open, democratic ranking system (not to demand that the current ranking system turn over its leadership). All these claims strike me as plausible, and I don’t think your objection undermines them. (Also, it’s not clear to me that internet providers serve the interests of communities – rather they seem to serve their own interests by providing a service to folks who are willing to pay for it. Anyway, the more distance we can create between the governance of our profession’s ranking system and the governance of cable companies, the better).Report

Anonymous PhD Candidate
Anonymous PhD Candidate
Reply to  Another Anonymous
7 years ago

Thanks, that’s helpful. Perhaps I’ve misread the original post. I took Professor Richardson’s claim to be that the various professional associations ought to take over control of the PGR and that, as members of the profession, we are entitled to demand this change in governance. If the basic suggestion is instead that the major professional associations ought to provide a ranking system that has the potential to unseat the PGR, then I think I agree.Report

Stefan Koller
Stefan Koller
Reply to  Anonymous PhD Candidate
7 years ago

For the PGR to function it requires data. Leiter and company do not generate that data out of thin air – they require the rest of the profession to supply it for them. Haslinger et al.´s letter was to remind the PGR of that reciprocal relation, by actively calling departments to withdraw their cooperation with the PGR on that very matter: “We cannot continue to volunteer services in support of the PGR in good conscience as long as Brian Leiter continues to behave in this way.¨

For the PGR to render *its* service to the profession, then, it requires the goodwill and cooperation of the profession to serve the PGR. While the profession has no direct control over how the PGR processes (selects and represents) the furnished data, Haslinger et al. are absolutely correct to exert their indirect means of control, and remind other professionals to do likewise.

By cutting out this element of the entire dispute, your analogy to internet providers seems to obscure something central. A more apt analogy would be perhaps in the area of journalism, and the type conduct society expects of journalists, including fair treatment of sources etc.Report

Sam Clark
7 years ago

I took Professor Richardson’s point to be a standard republican one: if I don’t have a say in decisions and activities that affect me then I lack freedom in an important way; institutions should be designed or changed to provide such freedom (see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/republicanism/). So: the PGR significantly affects philosophers (describing it as a service doesn’t change that); most philosophers don’t have a say in it; but we should. We could then disagree (a) about how important this kind of freedom actually is compared to other goods; (b) about what goods the PGR provides; and (c) about the right mechanisms for putting the claim of democratic freedom into practice, of course.Report

cheshire calhoun
cheshire calhoun
7 years ago

Alan wrote to me as chair of the APA’s board of officers. As I mentioned to him, 2003, the APA passed, and again reaffirmed in 2009, the statement that Alan mentions making clear that the APA does not itself provide a ranking of philosophy programs or endorse rankings. As an alternative the APA provides the annually updated Guide to Graduate Programs. Let me also clarify the respect in which the APA is indeed quite active in defense of the professional rights of philosophers. The Committee for the Defense of the Professional Rights of philosophers does enormously difficult and time consuming work reviewing complaints brought forward by an APA member that their academic institution has violated their professional rights. That review can result in the censuring of institutions. Other professional organizations have ceased doing this kind of work on their members’ behalf. The APA does not, however, handle complaints brought against individual members of the profession.Report

Fritz J. McDonald
7 years ago

I hope the APA doesn’t get in the rankings business. Probably no matter how the rankings turn out, they will generate some animosity. It’s better for the APA and philosophy for the APA if this doesn’t happen.Report

Eli
Eli
7 years ago

May I offer a friendly suggestion? Instead of ranking _lists_ of philosophers – from which it is fairly easy to infer a department – why not use a rating of _individual_ philosophers? Then the departments would be measured based on the average total score of their constituent faculty (or some such measure). Hopefully, that way prestige bias would be lessened somewhat (at least in the cases where a name was well known, but the related department was not).Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
7 years ago

There are many bodies other than the PGR that do rankings that affect philosophers: US News & World Report, the QS, and many others whose names I can’t remember. Some rank only whole universities, but their rankings affect philosophers and academics more generally. Does Alan think there’s an equal call for democractic governance of all those ranking bodies, or is there a special case for democratic governance of the PGR?Report

Bob Brecher
Bob Brecher
7 years ago

Perhaps I’m being naive, but what do colleagues expect? Why shouldn’t the profession be invaded by self-aggrandising charlatans in the same way that others are and as has become de rigeur for politicians? The very idea of “ranking” departments in “measurable” terms is designed to make us into competitors, into exemplars of the neo-liberal ideal of the individual. And so it should come as no surprise that the most “entrepreneurial” of us should make use of it for their own purposes. The title of this so-called report is enough to give the game away. So why on earth have any of us signed up to it?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
7 years ago

Shouldn’t the right criteria for judging a ranking process be epistemic, not democratic? A ranking that operates by epistemically good criteria (without prejudice to whether the PGR so operates) will give useful data on the thing it’s trying to rank, whether it’s run by an individual, a group, or an organisation. A ranking that operates by epistemically bad criteria will not magically produce useful data because those criteria were arrived at democratically.

By analogy: all manner of organisations produce data on how well various bits of the government and the economy are functioning. Some of that data is good, some is terrible, and we distinguish good from bad by looking at methodology. Those bodies appointed by the government do not reliably deliver better information than all of the others; even if they did, that would follow from the quality of their methods, not from the imprimatur of democracy.Report

Fera
Fera
7 years ago

Rankings serve purposes completely alien to what I understand philosophy to be. Like so many social practices it is extremely destructive but ridiculous all the same.Report

Anonymous PhD student 2
Anonymous PhD student 2
7 years ago

I think that professor Richardson’s comments may relate to one of my main worries about the PGR: the perception that it tends to favour a certain style of Philosophy. There are many fantastic departments who are curiously rated rather lowly for certain subjects. When one looks at the people assessing the departments for the PGR it is clear why this might be, since these people might not know about the special areas of the subject which happens to flourish at the department concerned. This suggests the need for a much larger group of assessors from various philosophical camps, but also for the need to breakdown subjects like the Philosophy of Language into distinct components, which would reflect more accurately the department’s strengths. This would in turn greatly help students. Look at the Illc in Amsterdam. This is an incredible place to study formal philosophy of language, formal semantics and logic that has collected together some of the world’s most interesting figures in these subjects for decades. The strength of places like the Illc in this regard is not reflected one iota in the PGR. This is deplorable. I could cite other examples.Report

Alexander Bird
Alexander Bird
7 years ago

Two thoughts:
1. Assuming (to start with – see 2. below) that the PGR does provide a useful service, then the pattern that has developed, leading to concerns about governance is a common one: an individual or group, seeing some need to be fulfilled or good to be done, sets about setting up structures and organisations to do those things. In due course those structures/organisations become influential, perhaps becoming dominant in a certain field. And naturally issues of governance then arise, including demands of a roughly ‘republican’ kind. The histories of the national governing bodies of many sports were like this. Well-intentioned individuals got together to codify rules and to organise competitions in the best interests of their sports’ participants. Having done so and thereby changed the nature of the sport and the terms on which sportsmen and women, and their clubs, could participate, the latter demanded greater involvement in the running the relevant sporting organisations. Of course, it isn’t always easy to know when or how such changes in governance should take place. Sometimes outside authorities will step in or be asked to step in (as in Professor Richardson’s letter). This history of the BBC, which was transformed from a private company to a chartered public service corporation is interesting in this respect.
2. About the assumption that the PGR is a good thing, an assumption not accepted by all. The aim of the PGR, as I understand it, was and is to bring provide more information for potential graduate students about which are the good graduate programs and schools in their intended subfields of philosophy. While the PGR is not everything that a potential graduate student could wish for, the collated opinions of a large number of senior people in the field is far from useless information. Information is thin on the ground for students in this position, and other than the PGR will be (a) the opinions of the professor at their undergraduate schools; and (b) somewhat amorphous received wisdom about which are the good schools and programs. If (a) and (b) are all you have then the PGR is a significant, if imperfect, addition. It clearly expands on (a), broadening the number of opinions to which the student has access. And it is a great improvement on (b) which is inherently conservative. In the absence of information it is always those with the best historical reputations who benefit. Famous brands rely on this – other things being equal, people go with the familiar name, even if the reputation of that name depends on little else than the fact that it has been the market leader for a long time. Likewise, in the absence of information about which the best schools are, students will (not unreasonably) choose universities that have high generic prestige attached to their names. One advantage of something like the PGR is that it allows less well-known institutions or departments to bring their achievements in building strong programs to the attention of students and others. I note that one of the effects of the nationally organised and highly intensive research assessments (RAE/REF) in the UK is that the near duopoly that Oxford and Cambridge once had on graduate philosophy and in particular on placement in the UK is long gone.Report